Tiny and dim rooms with chained doors line the dingy corridors, the walls of which have long been defaced by a variety of offensive graffiti. Downstairs, stinky water oozing from burst sewer pipes covers most of the yard, including the adjacent room that had been turned into an illegal rubbish pit.
“Welcome to our home, baba (my friend). We call it home because it provides shelter, but it’s so filthy that we are ashamed and scared to even bring our girlfriends here,” says Thabang Ncube as he shows us into the single room he shares with a friend.
Ncube’s “home” is a nameless dilapidated building on Second Avenue in Westdene near Sophiatown, west of Johannesburg. It has been his home for almost a year.
Their double bed has swallowed up the space in their room, which they also use for cooking and bathing. The building has 86 rooms and more than 200 occupants. The last time there was electricity was eight months ago. The taps have been dry since March last year.
Residents use nearby petrol stations and unoccupied rooms to relieve themselves as the toilets have been destroyed by vandals. The building has no fire escape routes and some of its rooms are used for prostitution and as drug dens.
“We come from all walks of life to look for employment here in Johannesburg. As much as this place is filthy and a health hazard for people to live in, it is our only home. We don’t pay rent because the owner abandoned this place a long time ago,” said Ncube.
Westdene and Sophiatown were hip suburbs prior the forced removals of the apartheid Group Areas Act in the 1950s. They somewhat reclaimed that title after the dawn of democracy in the 1990s as new standalone homes mushroomed.
However, the area has once more lost its glowing spark as a result of urbanisation and accommodation demands by students and job seekers who come from within the country and beyond. Today, Westdene and Sophiatown and parts of Melville resemble slum areas as many old buildings have been abandoned by their owners and taken over by desperate people looking for work.
On the other hand, cash-hungry homeowners are flaunting municipal zoning by-laws by illegally transforming their homes into communal accommodation for needy students.
According to the City of Joburg’s Development Planning progress report of September 2017, 271 properties in Westdene were investigated for contravening building and construction bylaws. At least 80 of these were found guilty of illegal construction and for using council land unlawfully. Most of these structures were located in Aberdeen, Perth and Ararat streets and Second Avenue.
This number could rise as municipal inspectors could not gain access to more than 100 properties as gates were either locked or occupants were unavailable.
On the corner of Third Avenue and Thornton, a newly built student accommodation has been so poorly constructed its walls encroach the edge of the road and its gutter hangs directly above the pavement. Residents accused the owner of stealing a metre of council land on the boundary to make his 14-room building bigger.
In Fifth Avenue, three houses were abandoned by their owner years ago and have since been occupied by homeless people.
Siphokazi, who lives there with her daughter and grandchild, places her hopes on finding a job so she and her family can get a conducive place to call home.
“I’m only here because I don’t have an option. I’ve lived here for years and I still can’t get used to this environment. There are too many drugs and alcohol,” said Siphokazi, who did not want to give her full name.
While Dauw Steyn, chairman of the Sophiatown Neighbourhood Watch, blames homeowners for being greedy and taking advantage of desperate shelter-seekers, he also accuses the council of charging exorbitant fees to people who want to convert their homes for business. He also says the review of residential rezoning applications and the manner of inspecting properties are unsatisfactory.
“Council workers just approve without doing their checks. They don’t care because they don’t live here. University of Johannesburg accredited student accommodation does exist but it costs a lot of money to go through the legal route. If it wasn’t this expensive, people would register their businesses,” says Steyn.
Rosa Vucevic, vice chairperson of Westdene-Sophiatown Residents Association, says the area was pleasant until 2013 when there was a big demand for accommodation and reliable public transport.
“The introduction of Rea Vaya caused a big boom. It was a great concept but government never thought of upgrading the sewer system and electricity supply for this community despite its increased population. Every now and then our pipes pack up,” says Vucevic.
Despite the tag “World Class City” that the previous administrators gave to the City of Joburg, mayor Herman Mashaba said recently that this concept was misleading as crucial infrastructure had long reached its lifespan.
“We have one electricity substation that supplies the entire inner city of Johannesburg. It is 75 years old, 30 years past its useful lifespan No service parts are available for this substation any longer - they stopped making those parts 20 years ago,” he said, adding that the city had an infrastructure backlog of R170billion.
But this is of little concern for Ncube. “My living conditions don’t really matter. This location gives me an upper hand because it’s close to work opportunities,” he says.